On paper, Dr. Bankole Johnson does not seem like a person who would be launching his own business.
A lifelong academic, medical doctor and professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Johnson got the idea to open a business when he was out running an errand for his wife. She had asked him to pick up an enhanced drink at the grocery store that claims to boost mental function.
He looked at the ingredients and couldn’t see how the drink did anything but give people a sugar and caffeine high.
“They couldn’t enhance the health of your brain or enhance whatever they said they were enhancing,” he said. “They hadn’t really been designed to work on the basis of science.”
Upon sharing his findings with his wife, her response was: Why don’t you do something about it?
Like a true scientist, Johnson started doing research and coming up with formulas.
“To me, it required a very different and novel thinking,” he said, “It was a blank sheet of paper to start off with.”
Johnson read as many as 600 articles on different approaches to beverage making. He wanted to make a drink with “naturally occurring substances.” Once he got the formula he wanted, he reached out to Firmenich, a company based in Geneva, Switzerland, and one of the largest flavor houses in the world.
To them, Johnson was an anomaly. No one ever comes in with a formula, ready to go. Doctors typically aren’t in the beverage-making business either.
“First question I got was, ‘Are you a rapper, an actor?”
Firmenich sent representatives from their New Jersey office to meet with Johnson in Maryland, he said.
“It was a very nice, collaborative process. It was a lot of fun.”
With that, Kole Life Foods was born. The drinks are marketed as having amino acids, trace elements and vitamins to enhance brain function. They come in four flavors: Inspire, which is supposed to boost focus and attention; Happy, which is supposed to elevate the drinker’s mood; Dreams, for sleeping; and Ignite, which is supposed to enhance intimacy.
The drink is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Congress has largely exempted the supplement industry from federal regulation, which means that those products’ health claims are not subject to any outside scrutiny.
Johnson said the FD was sent a notification that the drink is being sold.
Even though he knew the science, Johnson had to learn the business side. Initially, he estimated the drink was going to cost about $50,000 to produce. Development ended up costing $1 million.
He got funding primarily through angel investors from around the country. Johnson hopes his next funding round will include angel investors from Maryland and the Baltimore area.
“I’ll certainly be disappointed if all our investors are outside of Maryland,” he said.
The lack of Maryland angel investors in Johnson’s venture speaks to a wider problem that new businesses face in the state when it comes to securing initial financing, local entrepreneurs have complained. They’ve taken their concerns to the General Assembly, which is considering the creation of tax credits to spur early-stage capital investments.
Johnson plans to do another round of funding soon.
The Kole beverages are available for purchase on the brand’s website and will be available on Amazon in the coming weeks. The drinks cost $3 a bottle.
While it’s just the beginning, Johnson has big plans for his company. He hopes to eventually have a staff of 75 employees in Baltimore to handle sales and logistics.
“It’s going to be a fairly large company in the next couple of years,” he said.
But Johnson doesn’t plan to stop being a professor anytime soon. He has an executive vice president who manages the day-to-day operations. He plans to stay on as chairman of the company.
“All my time is focused on the school.”